By Karin Laub / AP
BEIRUT: Nearly a week after a cease-fire took effect, Syrian troops pounded a rebel stronghold Wednesday as the country’s foreign minister met with his Chinese counterpart in Beijing during the latest round of talks aimed at preventing the truce from unraveling.
Despite the persistent violence in Homs and other cities, the international community is reluctant to declare the cease-fire dead in part because it is seen as the only way to end the 13 months of bloodshed in Syria triggered by an uprising against President Bashar Assad.
Other options, such as foreign military intervention, arming Assad’s opponents and economic sanctions, have either been discarded or offer no quick solution. A deadlocked international community would be hard put to offer an alternative if it were to acknowledge the collapse of the cease-fire.
Instead, UN chief Ban Ki-moon is intensifying efforts to get a large contingent of observers on the ground to salvage the truce. He said a team of 250 monitors, as originally envisioned, might not be sufficient for the job. He has also asked the European Union for planes and helicopters to make the mission more effective. An advance team of half a dozen monitors has been in Syria since the weekend.
In new fighting Wednesday, Syrian forces fired mortar shells at rebel-held areas in the central city of Homs, battered by artillery for weeks, with only a brief lull on the first day of the truce last Thursday. Mortar shells fell every 10 or 15 minutes on Wednesday, said Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group based in Britain.
An amateur video of Homs posted Wednesday showed gray smoke rising from the city.
Abdul-Rahman said he and other opposition activists support the truce plan, devised by joint UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, despite widening regime attacks that have claimed dozens of lives in the past week.
“If the Annan plan fails, what happens?” he said. “There will be fighting between armed people and the Syrian army. Everyone loses …. Syria will disintegrate. The Annan plan is the last chance for us.”
The Annan plan has the backing of Syria allies Russia, China and Iran. UN Security Council members Russia and China have shielded Assad from international condemnation in the past, but Russia has become increasingly critical of the regime.
Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Moallem, held talks with his Chinese counterpart in Beijing on Wednesday, a week after a meeting with the Russian foreign minister.
The advance observer team went on its first field trip Tuesday, a visit to the southern city of Daraa where the Observatory reported protracted fighting between rebel gunmen and Syrian soldiers. On Wednesday, an explosion was heard in the city, followed by a gunbattle, the Observatory said.
The head of the team, Col. Ahmed Himiche, said Wednesday that he expects an additional two dozen monitors by Thursday. He said the team would be in touch with both sides in conflict, but did not comment on the trip to Daraa.
Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, seemed pessimistic Tuesday, saying that the situation in Syria is not improving.
“It may be impossible to do so,” Rice acknowledged. “It may be that the government’s logic is that it will continue the use of violence despite its repeated commitments as long as it can get away with it.” Nevertheless, Rice called the UN plan “perhaps the best and potentially the last best effort to resolve the situation through peaceful diplomatic means.”